Population Lab helps local communities gear up for redistricting

With a few quick, deft movements of mouse and keyboard, Jim Beaudoin reorganized voting in Columbia County. He collapsed 31 supervisory districts into two big ones, then grabbed a city block here, a rural block there, dragging them from one district to the other to balance the populations. Finally, he zoomed in to do similar surgery on wards and aldermanic districts. With that, he was done.

“I now have the perfect redistricting plan,” he said with a smile.

This isn’t exactly how things will go next month when Wisconsin’s local officials begin the once-a-decade chore of adjusting voting districts. Local staff won’t work this fast, or with such a heavy hand. But most of them will be using the same point-and-click, drag-and-drop technology, which Beaudoin, an applications developer with the Applied Population Laboratory and UW-Extension, has spent more than two years creating.

Next month the Applied Population Laboratory, based in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, will help coordinate six workshops around the state to show local officials how to use the program—called Wisconsin Shape Editor for Local Redistricting, or WISE-LR—and to bring them up to speed on the redistricting process. The training and software are products of a partnership between UW-Madison, UW-Extension, the Legislative Technology Services Bureau and the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting was triggered on March 9, when the U.S. Census Bureau sent Governor Walker and legislative leaders detailed data from the 2010 Census. Next fall and winter, the legislature will use those numbers to redraw state legislative and the U.S. Congressional districts—a process that’s bound to be highly partisan and contentious. But before that happens, local officials have to do their part, explains Dan Veroff, a UW-Extension demographic specialist who serves as director of the Applied Population Laboratory.

“Redistricting in Wisconsin is a bottom-up process. The first steps involve drawing new county supervisory districts and then creating municipal wards,” he says. Wards are the building blocks for voting districts for all races, from village boards on up to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Local redistricting begins in April and runs for six months. First, counties draw up tentative supervisory districts, then municipalities design wards to fit those districts and draw boundaries for their own local races. Finally, the counties assemble all of these into a final county redistricting plan.

Redistricting won’t generate as much political heat locally as it will for statewide races, but there is plenty of room for controversy, says Veroff, who helped guide local officials through the process in 2001.
“Where there has been a lot of population growth there will be contested areas, where someone wants to take a subdivision out or put it in to gain political advantage,” he says. “This also is when counties can resize their boards, changing the number of supervisors up or down. That can also be very political. Incumbents can end up losing their seats.”

The process will get a lot of scrutiny, adding to the pressure on local officials, many of whom haven’t been in their jobs for ten years and so haven’t been through the process. The WISE-LR software is designed to make the process smoother and more transparent.

“It’s a simple system that allows people who don’t have a lot of GIS or mapping systems capabilities to do redistricting in a map-based tool,” Veroff says. “The software will be delivered with the census data for that county loaded in, so they’ll have everything they need to assemble new wards or aldermanic districts or supervisory districts. As they add or subtract census blocks, they’ll see a running tally of the population of each district.”

And because the system is web-based, it’s widely accessible, Beaudoin points out.

“The beauty of this is that the plans can be viewed anywhere. If the county board is debating district boundaries, they can bring it up right in the meeting,” he says.

It’s a big step forward from the system in place a decade ago, when software and data were installed on individual desktop machines in each county, and a far cry from the tools being used in 1991.

“Twenty years ago, most of this was still being done with colored pencils and paper maps,” says Veroff.